Last week we started working on exploring 50 ways to connect our church with community. These posts are inspired by the work of Robert Crossman, Ann A. Michel, Kim Mitchel, and Lovett H. Weems, Jr., as found in the article https://www.churchleadership.com/50-ways/50-ways-to-take-church-to-the-community/from the Lewis Centre for Christian Leadership. For more information please refer to our post from May 1. Steps 1 to 3 appear there as well.
Today, we will think about what it means to be and behave spiritually as we prepare to connect to the wider community. The steps recommended in the article appear in blue and my comments appear under each:
Step 4. Acknowledge the synergy between the Great Commandment in Matthew 22 (love your neighbor as yourself) and the Great Commission in Matthew 28 (go and make disciples). Evangelistic outreach expresses our love of others.
Sometimes the word “Evangelism” is a four-letter word in this United Church of ours. The word is so often associated with the kind of Evangelical Christianity stemming from religious fundamentalism and biblical literalism. As is often the case, it is sometimes easier to ignore difficult ideas in our faith rather than to wrestle with them. Me? I’m always willing to wrestle with them if it means that it brings me a little closer to where Jesus is calling me to go.
While it is true that scripture states that after his resurrection Jesus spoke to the 11 remaining disciples at Galilee and commanded them to go out into the world and make disciples, the passage does not say how they were to do this. Unfortunately, this scripture has been used by some to justify colonization, forced conversion, and other oppressive practices that have absolutely nothing to do with the Greatest Commandments to love God and love others as God loves.
“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’” (Matthew 28:18-20)
If we allow ourselves to remember that when he was asked what the greatest of all the commandments was, “He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’” (Matthew 22:37-40) then we can filter all we are commanded through this teaching. Loving your neighbour is loving others as God loves us and God does not force us to do anything. Nope, God blessed us with freewill. We are called to honour that freewill. When we do, we will recognize that the way that we are called to make disciples is to be beacons of love in a dark and confusing world. If we shine like that then when others come to know and love us, they come to know and love God. There can be no coercion, no force, no judgement… only love. We teach by our example!
Step 5. Remember that Jesus primarily engaged people through everyday encounters, rather than in the Temple or synagogues. He fed people, met their everyday needs, and enjoyed the fellowship of others.
If we want to engage the community, then we need to be engaged IN the community. We have begun that work at Cole Harbour United Church by being a food bank location for example. But, what are some of the ways that we could go OUT into the community and offer to serve instead of being a place where people come to us to be served? Is there a way that we could get involved in community action groups or social justice initiatives started by others? Could we offer our help to them instead of only being concerned about how we can get others to help us? How does the song go? “Love is something if you give it away… you end up having more!” (Love is Like a Magic Penny)
Step 6. Express love and compassion for your community in big and small ways. Avoid judgmentalism.
As an Affirming congregation who has done the work of learning how to be inclusive of the LGBTQ+ community, we are committed to avoiding judgmentalism as a congregation. As individuals this can be a little more difficult. It requires that we acknowledge our natural biases and aversions to certain people and areas in our community. We all have preconceived notions about people that we aren’t necessarily proud of, but it’s not until we put ourselves in another’s shoes that we can appreciate and accept them as people worthy of our love. If we were to put our differences aside, across lines of religion, race, education, wealth and more where do you think we could express more love and compassion to others in our area?
Step 7. Pray regularly for your neighbors and lift up community concerns.
Praying for others matters. When we pray for someone, we are turning our hearts towards them. No matter how we pray or whatever names we use for God, when we include others in our internal and external dialogue with the Divine it is an intentional act of loving kindness. This is often the first step towards loving your neighbour!
Step 8. Attend to the faith formation of existing members. Willingness to share faith and reach out to others develops as one grows in faith and discipleship.
Faith formation? You might wonder what this means… isn’t going to church enough? Let me put it to you this way: Is showing up to watch a tennis match the same as playing the game? While showing up on a Sunday morning and being in community with your peers might help your week feel complete, engaging with your fellow gatherers and having conversations about your faith outside of Sunday worship is like moving from watching the game to learning how to play it. It is only by having these kinds of conversations with one another that we learn to express what it is that we believe about our faith and how practice it. More importantly, it is only by listening to others share their ideas and struggles with their own beliefs that we learn to grow in respect and understanding for people that don’t always believe the same things that we do.
In the United Church, we are blessed to have a lot of freedom of faith expression. So often that has been interpreted as freedom to not talk about it at all! Let’s get talking to one another about what we believe about our faith as a form of practice so that we feel really comfortable talking to our neighbours and even members of our family about what we believe. Why are we unwilling to engage others in conversations about spirituality and religion? Are we afraid of being judged? Approaching conversations like this with curiosity and interest, recognizing that we can agree to disagree, changes the whole game. Respect and understanding are the roots of deep and meaningful relationships with others.
Step 9. Prepare spiritually for the transformation that creative, risk-taking outreach will bring.
All of the above are ways to begin to Spiritually Prepare to connect with the community around our church. We are often so much better at preparing financially, logistically, and practically than we are at preparing spiritually. We might have the best of intentions in hindsight, but without having the foresight to prepare our hearts and minds we may not be and behave as lovingly as we might later wish we had. It is so important to consider our true intention before we dive into any new venture. I’ll leave you to consider a few important spiritual questions to ask yourselves before you embark on “creative, risk-taking outreach”. Ask yourselves, “Are we reaching out into the community to be of service to others in a way that is unconditional and loving? Or, is it our intention to bring new people into our church by our actions?” While new membership may be a wonderful side effect of being good disciples by loving God and loving our neighbour, our only goal ought to be to love unconditionally. Ask yourselves, “If we serve in our community and nobody new comes to church, would we feel we wasted our time?” If so, don’t bother. Return to the drawing board. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200! God doesn’t call you to fill the church pews. God calls you to love and serve others. Period.
Stay tuned for next week when we think about how we could get to know our community.
In the Peace and LOVE of Christ,
Minister of Spiritual Care